Hazel McHaffie

isolation

Decisions in a time of coronavirus

Week 2 of the lockdown because of Covid-19 and I am reflecting back on an extraordinary seven days. Unprecedented. Grave. Frightening. But one of the most unexpected developments has been a positive one, closely connected to my professional interests: people have been thinking and talking about the ethics around end of life care, and specifically about Advance Directives, teasing out the kind of interventions or treatments they would wish to avoid.

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I wrote my own living will years ago, and have revisited it periodically just to be certain it reflects my sustained wishes. It does. My husband and children have known about the documents and their contents ever since I drafted them, but suddenly these matters seem much more urgent and relevant. There’s a greatly increased possibility that I might become seriously ill soon; that I or they might be called upon to decide whether it’s appropriate or not to accept aggressive or invasive treatment. That it might be futile. So, this week I sent copies of my Advance Directive to refresh their memories as to the detail. If they’re called upon to represent my views, they will know precisely what to say.

However, more importantly, this crisis has prompted other people I know to think about their own mortality and how they feel about these issues, for the first time. Sobering stuff. But so right.

At the very least we all need to have the conversation with our nearest and dearest; better still record our decisions, have them officially witnessed, make the documents known and available.

And the questions even for hardened ethicists have been widened and thrown into stark relief by developments during this pandemic:
what if our hospitals are already full, and I can’t be admitted if I succumb to the virus?
what if being admitted to hospital means I risk dying alone?
what if I live alone and I contract the illness?
what if I fall outside the criteria for treatment?
what if the medics deem me to be highly unlikely to survive?
what if it’s a choice of me versus another patient?
what happens if no-one can attend a funeral?
… and so on …
This public health catastrophe and its horrific statistics has brought us face to face with undreamed-of dilemmas confronting our society in the spring of 2020. Now.

The time has never been more urgent for a weighing up of the risks and benefits, and an analysis of our beliefs and values. For having the conversation. It’s personal. It’s real. It’s not going away.

What will you choose?

 

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Guest interview: Linda Gillard

This week I’m bringing you my very first author interview on this blog.

Linda GillardLinda Gillard has just published her seventh novel – the fourth one she’s produced independently, and she’s achieving considerable success going solo. She first contacted me after I’d reviewed one of her books (A Lifetime Burning) and I’ve since benefited greatly from her generously shared experience of independent publishing. She’s one of those people who uses hard experiences positively, and I’m a great admirer of her personal courage as well as her writing, which is why I’ve chosen her as my debut guest author. Here she is talking to me about various aspects of her life and writing.

HMcH. Linda, you’ve had a number of varied careers before becoming a full time novelist actress, journalist, primary school teacher. You’ve also known personal difficulties – mental illness, cancer. All experiences are valuable to authors, but how have your previous lives influenced your writing, would you say? 

 LG. I think my previous lives taught me to communicate effectively, using the minimum number of words. As a columnist I knew my features would be cut from the bottom up by sub-editors, so I learned to thwart them by writing to a word count. As an actress I learned how much can be conveyed in good dialogue and how eloquent silence can be. As a teacher and journalist, I learned it was essential to grab people’s attention. I think my previous jobs also taught me not to judge. That’s useful for a writer.

My ill health has made me look – at times desperately – for the positives. Perhaps that’s why I’m able to tackle some tough subjects without losing my readers.

HMcH. I personally like the heft you give several of your books by tackling weighty issues like mental illness, loss, social isolation. But what steps do you take to stop them deterring your readers?

LG. I send my characters to some very dark places, but I give them a torch and I make sure there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.

HMcH. A remote bolthole to escape to? Sounds like a writer’s dream! But you’ve actually lived in desolate spots. Does isolation really help creativity? 

LG. It did for me. Or perhaps I should say, it helped with productivity. I lived on Skye for six years – alone for two of them – and produced four novels in that period. Silence is very important to me. I need to be able to hear my imaginary friends talking! I now live in a village near Inverness which is even quieter than my old home on Skye, but I don’t get so much uninterrupted time. I think that’s the key thing: being able to daydream without thoughts being interrupted. To think up a book, I need to get into a meditative state where I can enter an imaginary world and keep asking ‘What if…?’

HMcH. One of the best accolades readers can give is that one’s books are unputdownable. Yours are. What elements in your writing do you think create this quality?  

LG. Thank you, Hazel. I’d given a lot of thought to this, even before I started writing. I first asked the question when I read Margaret Forster’s novels in the ’80s and ’90s. I noticed that if I glanced at p1 of a Forster novel, I couldn’t stop reading. Somehow she made it impossible for me to stop. (If you want to see what I mean, start reading Shadow Baby.) Forster writes commercial literary fiction, so the hook wasn’t action or sensation. I realised it was all to do with style, not content. Forster never wrote a boring sentence, nor an inelegant one. She made her novels really easy to read – so easy, I didn’t think about putting the kettle on or emptying the washing machine, I just kept reading. That’s what makes a book ‘unputdownable’. It’s not just wanting to know what happens next. I edit and polish until my sentences flow. I cut every word that isn’t earning its keep.

But something else that might contribute to the ‘unputdownable’ quality of my books is the fact that I rarely know what’s going to happen when I’m writing and I never know how a book will end. Writing fiction for me is a process of investigation, excavation even. I really want to know what happens next and I’m writing to find out. Maybe some of that curiosity and urgency conveys itself to the reader.

HMcH. I wouldn’t describe your books as romances in the usual sense but, I think I’m right in saying, they all have a romantic element. Some reviewers get sniffy about this kind of tangential reliance on crowd-pleasers. How would you reply to them? 

LG. As I would like to reply to readers who leave me 1-star reviews: ‘I wasn’t writing for you.’

HMcH. Some of your books include ghosts; several of them revolve around haunted (in a looser ‘troubled’ sense) characters. Are these aspects allegorical or simply a plot choice?  

CauldstaneLG. Ghosts or the concept of imaginary people appear in all my books, but I think what’s happened over the years is my interest in the paranormal has moved to the forefront of the story. But the ghosts can also be allegorical. Cauldstane (my latest novel) is my fictional response to my experience of breast cancer – it’s about fear and conquering fear. The malevolent ghost who affects (and infects) an entire family is for me a personification of cancer. Using a ghost as a plot device allowed me to write about my own ghastly experience without scaring off the reader – and that’s important. My first duty is to entertain. Unless I entertain, I’ll have no opportunity to debate or educate.

HMcH. Publishing can be a rather fraught business. You’ve tried several avenues, including latterly, self-publishing. Now you’ve done it, would you stay independent? 

LG. Yes. I can’t imagine any circumstances now where I’d accept a traditional publishing deal. As an indie I’m now earning a decent living from my writing (something I never did when I was traditionally published), but that’s because I keep most of what I earn. To be sure, I’m weary of doing all my own editing, marketing, sales monitoring, etc., but my aim is to earn enough to pay an assistant to do the bits I don’t want to do.

Traditional publishing was coming between my books and their readers. Editors said my novels were ‘unmarketable’. Well, maybe they are, but I don’t market my novels, I market myself. ‘Linda Gillard’ is a brand now. My readers are buying a voice. They expect believable characters and a good yarn. They know I’ll be dealing with something I care about passionately, but the genre – and a lot else besides – might come as a surprise. They don’t mind. They trust me now not to let them down. This is a great privilege for a writer. It means I have the opportunity to experiment in a way that wouldn’t be possible if I were traditionally published.

HMcH. Thank you so much, Linda. And I wish you every success with your new book, Cauldstane, and improved health from here on.

For more information about Linda and her novels visit her website or her Amazon page.

(NB. The links are mine to enable you to find out more about what she says if you feel so inclined; Linda doesn’t talk in weblinks!)

 

 

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Garrets and unsung heroes

Garrets have long had a romantic appeal for me, conjuring up images of impecunious geniuses scribbling furiously, driven by their talent to endure hardship and isolation for the sake of their art – floor littered with discarded paper, fingers blotched with ink, hair dishevelled, meals and sleep forgotten … Then there’s the whole business of using pseudonyms to hide talent, refusing worldly acclaim … well, it’s the stuff of martyrs and heroes, isn’t it? Childhood fantasy.

Though they don’t exactly languish in crumbling attics, certain famous writers alive today have been known to grumble that they only ever see other authors at memorial services. Writing just isn’t a convivial occupation.

However, it occurs to me that that very isolation can help to preserve something of the glamour with which we invest the big names. Attendance at book festivals demonstrates how much we like to actually see and hear the person behind the book, obtain a signature (yes, we were that close!). Competition for seats can be fierce. Tickets became available for the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week and by Day 2 lots of events were already sold out – four of them ones I’d hoped to attend.

Last year I was speaking at this same festival, which meant that I had open access to the hallowed turf of the authors’ yurt – breathing the same air as the great and the good, sharing the same couches, nibbling from the same tables. All sorts of well-kent faces came and went – most of them a lot less glamorous close-up in the flesh than I’d pictured, it must be said! – but I still sat in awe. A small child seeing giants.

And perhaps that explains why a schoolgirl was celebrating this week. She wrote to thank me for being interviewed for her school project. She’d chosen as her subject, ‘Books’, and thought she might have an edge if she contacted ‘a real live author’. (Basic credentials – living and breathing – so I’m not reading personal acclaim into any of this, I hasten to add.) For her there is something mysterious and compelling about the secret world of writing; something she clearly managed to convey, because her project won the prize! Well done, Esther!

But maybe something of the mystique would be lost if she saw the ordinariness of the study where I write. So … we’re about to have a second opening cut into the attic of our very old house – maybe I’ll put in a personal bid for the cobwebs and clutter after all. Much more romantic obituary material … ‘wrote most of her books squirreled away in a garret’ … don’t you think?

As if!

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